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July 25, 2013

New Report Highlights Need For Action against Viral Hepatitis

by Kim Lewis

A new report on hepatitis by the the World Health Organization, WHO, highlights the need for countries to develop improved action plans to prevent the spread of the disease.

The report was launched ahead of World Hepatitis Day which is held every July 28.  The WHO said the survey includes results from 126 countries where actions are being prioritized to address the illness.

“Hepatitis is really a major global health issue.  It’s really under- appreciated.  It’s called the silent epidemic because you can become infected and have no symptoms for decades before developing cirrhosis or cancer,” explained  Dr. Stefan Wiktor, team leader on the WHO’s Global Hepatitis Programme.   The international health organization estimates that about 500-million people have chronic hepatitis B or C, and about 1.4 million of those infected die each year.

The researcher pointed out that there are five different types of the virus, which adds to its complexity.  However, he said there are two main ways to contract it.

“It’s either through contaminated water or food, that’s for hepatitis A and E.  The other hepatitis’ B, C and D, are through exposure to contaminated blood -- either through blood transfusions, through unsafe injections, either in a healthcare setting or among injecting drug users,” explained Wiktor.

He also said hepatitis can be transmitted from mother to child, and between sexual partners.

Dr. Wiktor explained that Hepatitis A and B can be prevented through vaccination, screening blood, and changing people’s behaviors. 

While most people that have hepatitis B or C do not know it, it is easy to diagnose through a simple blood test.

“Part of the reason that more people are not being tested is that neither healthcare workers, nor doctors, don’t always understand how serious of an issue it is,” said Wiktor, who also pointed out changes are occurring in how the disease is viewed.  For example, he explained that in the United States, a new policy recommends that anyone born between 1945 and 1965 be tested for hepatitis C.

Other positive signs, said Wiktor, are new drugs to control hepatitis and even cure some forms of it, as  well as medicines on the horizon that will be easier to take, with a higher cure rate, especially for hepatitis C.

Wiktor pointed out that while hepatitis is a worldwide problem, certain regions are more affected than others. For example,  Africa and Asia experience high incidents of hepatitis B and C.  Egypt has the most people infected with hepatitis C – 10 percent of the population.  But, he notes the country has done what he calls tremendous work in scaling up hepatitis treatment programs.

Wiktor said he hopes with the release of the report; countries will get a better sense of how serious the problem of hepatitis is within their own borders.  Once they are aware of this, they will then need to gather their own data, which is vital for obtaining resources to treat the disease. Without the data, Wiktor emphasized, it would be hard to convince politicians and lawmakers to pay more attention to the problem, and plan comprehensive hepatitis control programs.